There’s plenty of cultural information to chew on
Mississippi’s cultural food history is deep, fried, and truly Southern. Distinctive flavors and delicacies shine in big restaurants, small cafés, and festivals from the Gulf Coast to the northern hills.
The food traditions of the state’s five tourism regions come together in a virtual trail, the Mississippi Culinary Trail, found online. Let’s take a foodie’s tour of Mississippi and hear about some of our favorite places to enjoy the best of the state.
Head for the Hills
Before exploring all the Hills Region in northern Mississippi offers, fortify yourself with eggs from local, free-range chickens, house-made sausages, and more at Big Bad Breakfast in Oxford. This is one of four restaurants–Big Bad Breakfast, Bouré, City Grocery, and Snackbar–established by John Currence, winner of the James Beard Best Southern Chef award in 2009.
Drive eight miles south of Oxford to Taylor, home of Taylor Grocery & Restaurant. This former dry goods store features live dinner music Thursday–Sunday, and the catfish–fried, grilled, or blackened–gets rave reviews.
In Tupelo, Elvis Presley’s hometown, dine like the King with a Blue Suede Grill–a grilled banana and peanut butter sandwich–at Café 212, a fun downtown lunch spot.
Romie’s Grocery on West Jackson Street offers a daily lunch plate with your choice of three meats and several vegetables. The Neon Pig Café on North Gloster Street is an old-school butcher shop and market that serves a Smash Burger (a grind of aged steak topped with Benton’s bacon from Tennessee). Get a Smash Burger with a side of fried black-eyed peas at The Blue Canoe bar/restaurant, also on North Gloster.
But maybe the most famous burger from this region is known as the slugburger. Made from a mixture of ground beef and usually cornmeal as filler, the patty is deep-fried instead of grilled. It’s usually garnished with mustard, pickles, and ample onions. The unusual name is thought to come from the fact that in years past, the burger was sold for about a nickel, and “slug” was a slang expression for the five-cent piece. This culinary invention is celebrated in Corinth each July with the Annual Slugburger Festival.
In the flat Delta region, catfish ponds fan out from Humphreys County, the self-titled Catfish Capital of the World. In the town of Belzoni, feast on catfish that’s fried, broiled, or served in salads, soups, and stews. The 39th Annual World Catfish Festival will take place here on April 5.
The Delta is also famous for hot tamales. Doe’s Eat Place on Nelson Street in Greenville is practically synonymous with this spiced meat and cornmeal mixture; Doe Signa started selling tamales in the 1940s. The restaurant also is known for bigger-than-the-plate steaks.
Come to downtown Greenville in mid-October for the annual Hot Tamale Festival. Cooking contests, demonstrations, festival food, and crafts come together in the Hot Tamale Capital of the World®.
And, shucks, you can follow the Southern Foodways Alliance’s Hot Tamale Trail that starts in the Delta and snakes through Mississippi. The trail will lead you to Clarksdale, a big Mississippi Blues Trail destination, and Ground Zero Blues Club. You’ll not only hear great blues here, but you can feast on tamales and a soul food plate lunch or dinner. The menu has barbecue, burgers, fried green tomatoes, and more. This is the birthplace of the blues and was home to Delta musicians Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner, and innumerable others.
Dining in the Pines
Sweet potatoes are the cash crop in Vardaman, the Sweet Potato Capital in the Pines Region of eastern Mississippi. Sweet potatoes are cured with heat before chilling and packing to enhance the natural sugars. Sweet Potato Sweets™ is a “homegrown” bakery that features 30 sweet potato products. Sampling these sweets is a bit like wine tasting, but as co-owner Daphna Cook said, “You can still drive afterward.” Pies, cakes, cookies, marmalades, and butter are among the items at Sweet Potato Sweets.™
Named for the longleaf pines that were abundant, the region’s timber and railroad industries brought immigrants to eastern Mississippi. Swiss chef Felix Weidmann came to Meridian in 1870 and founded Weidmann’s Restaurant. During World War II, the shortage of butter inspired the owner to place crocks of peanut butter with crackers on the tables. This tradition continues with Mississippi-made crocks that can be purchased. The Black Bottom Pie and Peanut Butter Pie are signature desserts.
Capital and River Region
Greeks, Lebanese, Italians, and other ethnic groups often arrived to this southwest Mississippi region via the Mississippi River. Recipes they prepared in home kitchens quickly caught on in their new homes. Kiefer’s in Jackson mixes Mediterranean with Greek, and is known for pita wraps and gyros.
When the Scots-Irish met the West Africans, their cultures blended into a marriage made in fry heaven. Meats and vegetables–including dill pickles, green tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and chicken–were dipped in a cornmeal batter and deep-fried. One of the Top 10 places for fried chicken in the country, according to USA Today, is Julep Restaurant & Bar in Jackson. There’s also catfish tacos and fried green tomatoes Napoleon (fried tomatoes layered with crabmeat and goat cheese). Two Sisters Kitchen, also in Jackson, and Mama Hamil’s in Madison are other fried chicken palaces.
More deep-fried goodness is found at Cock of the Walk Restaurant in Ridgeland and Pocahontas. Get the turnip greens and fried dill pickles with catfish and cornbread. Waiters dressed like 19th-century keel boatmen in a nod to Natchez-Under-the-Hill during the 1800s serve platters of catfish or fried chicken.
In Vicksburg, Walnut Hills is all about “Southern plantation cuisine” and serves fresh vegetables, chicken and dumplings, country-fried steak, and so much more at revolving tables. Due to the city’s location midway between Dallas and Atlanta, Memphis and New Orleans, the tables may be shared with people from California to Orlando, Arkansas to Chicago.
As expected, fresh seafood is the center attraction on the plate along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast region. Author/restauranteur Robert St. John heads up the New South Restaurant Group that includes the Purple Parrot Café (AAA Four Diamonds) in Hattiesburg. He said, “The three most beautiful words in the English language are jumbo lump crabmeat,” and the restaurant’s redfish with jumbo lump crabmeat is definitely well worth trying.
In Biloxi, BR Prime (AAA Four Diamonds) specializes in fine steaks and seafood, while Jia (AAA Four Diamonds) has a Pan-Asian flair. Both are located in the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino.
Additional AAA Four Diamond restaurants in Biloxi include the IP Casino Resort’s Tien (Asian) and thirty-two (steaks and seafood).
For tasty ribs (and more) and good music, check out The Shed Barbecue and Blues Joint in Ocean Springs and Gulfport.
Wherever you travel along Mississippi’s Culinary Trail, you will not go home hungry. Pack your appetite and a sense of adventure, and dig in.
Carolyn Thornton is a contributor from Purvis, Miss.
Mar/Apr 2014 Issue
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